Immigrant Detention in Louisiana Is Just Next Chapter of State’s Prison Culture

Aug 3, 2021
4:51 PM

Detainees sit and wait for their turn at the medical clinic at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, La., Thursday, September 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Louisiana has a long history of being the world’s prison capital. This one U.S. southern state once surpassed entire countries with the number of prisons they host. Yes, Louisiana has more prisons than countries like Iran, China, and Germany, to just name a few.  For example, one of Louisiana’s notorious prisons —Angola State Prison— was once an 8,000-acre plantation named after the African country where many of the enslaved people in Louisiana were kidnapped from. This facility is bounded by the Mississippi River, where the nearest town is 30 miles away, making it the Alcatraz of the Gulf South.

Unfortunately, this institution intentionally targets certain demographic groups, and as a result, it serves as a hegemonic institution for Black and Brown people due to its violent policing and racist sentencing laws.

In the last few years —even after Oklahoma has surpassed the state in boasting a larger number of prisons— there has still been a proliferation of detention centers in rural Louisiana parishes. As of now, Louisiana has nine state jails that partner with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain asylum-seekers. Approximately 8,000 migrants of the 51,000 migrants throughout the country are held in Louisiana. However, this is just the beginning of what may become a sinister, xenophobic culture in Louisiana—much like their notorious reputation for having once been the prison capital of the world.

Politicians in Louisiana have signed contracts to support ICE in exchange for millions in payments to local governments and the state. For every person who occupies a bed in detention, ICE pays $70 to $133 per day. This business flourishes by following the blueprint to the prison-industrial complex.

Private prisons became a thing in the 1980s, with a surge of incarcerated people due to racist policies—now it’s a default strategy for asylum-seekers as well. This explains why a company like LaSalle Corrections has power and authority within immigration issues concerning ICE. This private company is operating six of the nine jails that are incarcerating asylum-seekers.

This conglomerate machine has a dark history. An incarcerated person in Texas died in 2015 due to lack of medical care. This private company is also known for its negligence and violence. For example, in 2016 four former guards pepper-sprayed people in handcuffs as they were kneeling at a LaSalle-affiliated Louisiana prison in Louisiana. These guards were sentenced to federal prison, sounding an alarm to organize and track LaSalle Corrections.

Prisons and detention centers are cut from the same cloth—they target people of color and they do it so insidiously. They exploit small towns whose economy relies on that profit to survive. Such is the case of Winnfield. It is the largest city in the parish of Winn, just north of Baton Rouge. Winnfield is home to 4,400 people. Twenty years ago, the population was 5,700. Unfortunately, Winnfield relies on Winn Correctional Center for its survival. While the overall prison population has declined, it has only led to ICE becoming more of a presence in Winnfield.

As one local told AP about the possibility that Winn might have closed,  “It would have been devastating. You’d see people moving, bankruptcy. It would be like an automobile plant closing.”

Instead, this hegemonic institution weaponizes poor people at the expense of marginalized people seeking asylum. Employees at Winn witnessed a massive raise from $10 dollars an hour to $18.50 an hour. This strategy is what keeps private prisons in business. The fact that many of these prisons are in rural America and away from resources is a tactic to keep people under watch. However, this becomes a problem for asylum-seekers when they are trying to get an attorney or even navigate their location once ICE has released them.

More Migrants Being Released

These last few weeks, legal advocates have seen a marked increase in the release of people detained in these facilities. ICE is dropping off people at airports, rural towns, and even bus stops at random hours. Advocates are thrilled to get the news that their clients are getting released, but the way ICE is releasing them violates safety standards. For instance, in just a span of two weeks and in the middle of a pandemic, 75 asylum-seekers were dropped off at the Monroe Regional Airport, 90 were transported to Mississippi by bus, and 80 folks from Haiti were sent to Shreveport. ICE is releasing people so abruptly that, according to advocates, the government is notifying families in a timely manner.

Some families don’t even have the funds to handle these emergencies on such late notice. Organizations such as Miles for Migrants and Voces Unidas New Orleans are doing triage work to make sure people reunite with families. The fact that ICE is not following proper safety protocols is an issue that continues to harm people detained. Louisiana Aid, located in Northern Louisiana, is working with local organizations to address this negligence: “… [Blatant] violations of the ICE for Performance-Based National Detention Standards 2011 regarding release protocols in Louisiana and Mississippi [are] causing serious harm to the well-being and safety of those being released.”

The challenges people face in Louisiana are difficult but communities are working together to support one another.

“Our role is to temporarily house migrants while they are in the process of reuniting with loved ones. We collaborate with legal advocates and shelter our most vulnerable,” grassroots leader Leticia Casildo told Latino Rebels. “We recently housed a young woman from Guatemala who had a mental health condition. Despite her condition, ICE detained her for nine months.”

Leticia runs a collective called Familias Unidas en Acción. This Honduran activist works to empower migrant communities by providing shelter and teaching them the craft of sewing, plumbing and other handy work.

Despite the challenges migrants continue to face in Louisiana, advocates are in solidarity.


Giuli Alvarenga is an award-winning writer and law student, located in New Orleans. They have a Bachelor’s degree focused on English Literature and Gender & Women’s Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Giuli is an ambassador for the CDC program “Let’s Stop HIV Together” and a student liaison for the American Bar Association’s Health Law Section.